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For BIE Schools Transitioning To Tribal Control, The Shift Isn't Easy
The Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) funds nearly 200 schools across Indian Country, but fully one third of those schools are still run by officials in Washington, D.C.
Now the BIE is hoping a few more schools will venture out of their administrative nest, encouraging tribes to take over management. The hope is that schools will actually thrive when locally run. But it’s a hard transition.
For the first and second graders at the Pueblo of Isleta Elementary School, recess is serious business. "Tag, you're it!," said one child as he ran toward the monkey bars, doing his best to escape.
This BIE school is on the Isleta Pueblo in New Mexico, about 15 miles south of Albuquerque. At the moment, these kids’ biggest concern is who is “it” in this game of tag. The faculty and tribal officials, however, have bigger concerns. They’re in their first year of running the school on their own. The federal government transferred control of Isleta Elementary to the tribe in July.
"We started talking about this in June of 2014," said tribal member Debbie Lente Jojola. "They just found the system was not working as a bureau-operated school system. Our test scores were horrible."
Isleta Pueblo contracted with Jojola's company, Rain Cloud Consulting, to coordinate the transition effort. Jojola said the school faced more than just low test scores when it was under BIE management. Things like hiring and firing staff were a problem.
"In a bureau-operated system, you know, after your probation period it’s almost an act of God to release someone," she said.
The tribe couldn’t afford to pay teachers what the federal pay scale demanded, but Jojola explained one of the biggest issues was not having a real educational leader. Under the BIE, school principals were enmeshed in bureaucracy, not education.
"They have to watch transportation. They have to oversee food services, they have to oversee curriculum and the educational piece," Jojola said. "So all the other admin pieces consume the principal’s job."
As a result, Jojola said many parents were moving their kids to state-run public schools in Albuquerque and Los Lunas. In the past 10 years, attendance has dropped by half. She said tribal government decided to take control of the school.
So what’s different this year?
"There’s no one else to blame," said school principal Frank Fast Wolf. "Because now they don’t have the BIE or the history of the BIE. They take over that ownership."
Fast Wolf said with less administrative responsibility, he’s focusing more energy on the kids and teachers this year. He’s also working to encourage his teachers to become more invested in the students, rather than just clocking out when the school day is over.
While tribal culture has always played a larger role in BIE schools when compared with state public schools, Jojola said now it’s even more so.
"There is much more to the curriculum than just learning your ABC’s and how to write and speak," she said. "It’s bringing your community into all those subject areas, because it’s living it everyday."
The change hasn’t been without its share of logistical challenges though. While pay rates are competitive to New Mexico public schools, the school is no longer offering the high federal pay scale they were once required to. Many former teachers decided not to reapply for their positions under tribal management. Despite all of that, Jojola is still optimistic about the school’s future.
"This is a new day and time. We no longer want to say, 'OK, just hire me and we’ll follow your rules and guidance,'" said Jojola. "We really want to take that leadership and ownership."
Isleta Elementary is the only BIE school on this reservation. For tribes like the Navajo Nation, which has 66, this shift this is much more complex.
In part three of this series, we’ll take a closer look at how the process is working there and explore why many are opposing the move.